Close your eyes.
Now... I'm going to throw out a word or phrase and would like you to tell me the first image that springs to mind...
My guess is that there's a spectrum of memories connected with this meal which may come to mind...but also a consistent theme. Something along the lines of, "no thanks".
If you'd asked me to play this game a few years ago, I would have blurted out, "Lipton Onion Soup Mix!!".
Let me do a little free associating...
Stringy beef...overcooked potato...salty...brown carrots...scary pressure cooker...Wednesdays...
and...the aforementioned, Lipton Onion Soup Mix!
Though I wouldn't call the pot roast of my childhood traumatic exactly, I have come to realize recently all pot roasts are NOT created equal! My mother's reliable Wednesday night special bears little resemblence to an exceptionally good version I had in a restaurant a couple years ago. (They used a bit of fancy schmancy wording to describe their pot roast...something like "locally raised, grass fed braised beef with root vegetables and blah blah blah...you get the idea. ) A few weeks later I was riveted to a cooking show when I saw they were preparing, yes... pot roast. The phrase they used that stuck in my mind was "unattended cooking". You're telling me I don't have to fuss over something and it will taste great as a result? Are you kidding? I'm IN!
Cooking types love to throw around the term braise, and that's what pot roast is. Call it whatever you like...but, basically you're taking a cheap, tough cut of meat and cooking it in some sort of liquid, long and slow, and, ahem...unattended, to achieve melting, falling-apart tenderness. Simple, delicious (did I say easy?!) and comforting.
The real beauty here is that the essential idea (hunk of beef, seared and then cooked in liquid for a long time) can be varied according to your mood and craving. Live la dolce vita and make Beef Braised in Barolo with a side of polenta. This version was my personal favorite dinner party fare most of last winter. (There is something immensely pleasing about watching your dinner guests wipe their plates clean with that last piece of bread.) For my French friends, I would make simple pot roast, but serve with roasted carrots and parsnips alongside mashed potatoes drizzled with reduced juices from the roast.
A few weeks ago I heard a story on NPR that made me a little sad and a little happy. It described that despite the current economic gloom, there was a small bright spot: an uptick in the grocery store business. In the piece, a neighborhood grocery manager described seeing a whole new crowd of shoppers at her store. They are people who have started cooking at home. Despite the unrelenting 'and there's more bad economic news' that morning, this story made me happy. More people cooking...for themselves, and maybe for others! It has to lead to good things, I tell you!
So, if you have some bad, lingering memories of that childhood pot roast, I urge you to reconsider and give it a try. It's hard for me to explain why this food is so comforting, but it is. On some primal level, there is a warm sense of well-being that envelopes you when you've got a belly full of meat and potatoes. Times like this one wishes for an enormous pot roast dinner one could feed the nation. Not possible, I know...so for now, maybe invite some of your dearest friends over and cook a pot roast at home.
I guarantee...this is not your mother's pot roast.
You'll need a big dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. I usually cover the pot with a layer of foil then press the lid down over that for an extra tight seal.
The long and slow part happens in the oven, so you sear the beef on the stove and then cover and move the pot to the oven for several hours. The final sauce reduction is done back on the stove, when you've removed the beef from the pan.
As mentioned above, most of the cooking is done while you're puttering around the house. That said, it's definitely one of those things to make on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, although I've been known to make it in advance on a Friday night for a Saturday night dinner for friends. The taste improves overnight in the refrigerator.
Recipe below is the 'Italian' version I love. Serve with polenta or mashed potatoes and a nice, peppery arugula and radicchio salad on the side.
Beef Braised in Barolo**
(adapted from Cook's Illustrated)
1 chuck-eye roast*, boneless (about 3 1/2 pounds), tied in three places, with kitchen twine
salt and ground black pepper
4 oz. pancetta*, cut into 1/4 cubes
2 medium onions, chopped medium (about 2 cups)
2 medium carrots, chopped medium (about 1 cup)
2 ribs celery, chopped medium (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 bottle Barolo* wine
14.5 oz. (1 can) diced tomato (I like Muir Glen)
1 sprig fresh thyme, plus 1 teaspoon minced thyme leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary
10 sprigs fresh parsley leaves
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Pat beef dry thoroughly with paper towels and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper . (Wet beef will not brown properly!)
2. Brown pancetta over medium heat in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven; stirring occasionally until crisp. Transfer to paper-lined plate when browned and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.
3. Brown the beef on all sides in the reserved fat over medium-high heat. Transfer beef to a large plate and set aside.
4. Reduce heat to medium; add onions, carrots, celery, and tomato paste to pot and cook, stirring occasionally until veg begin to soften and brown. Add garlic, sugar, flour, and reserved pancetta; cook, stirring constantly, until combined and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add wine and tomatoes, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits; add thyme sprig, rosemary, and parsley. Return roast, and any accumulated juices to the pot. increase heat to high and bring liquid to boil, then place large sheet of foil over pot and over tightly with lid.
Set pot in oven and cook about three hours. About every 45 minutes you'll want to turn the beef. When the beef is ready, a dinner fork should easily slip in and out of the meat.
5. Transfer beef to cutting board; tent with foil to keep warm. Allow braising liquid to settle about 5 minutes off the heat, and then skim the accumulated fat off the surface. Add minced thyme leaves, bring liquid back to a boil over high heat on the stove and cook about 15-20 minutes, using a whisk every so often to help vegetables break down. The mixture should reduce and thicken to about 3 1/2 cups.
6. To get the sauce to an incredible, velvety consistency, strain through a large fine-mesh strainer and then return to a saucepan for additional reducing, to 1 1/2 cups. Taste and season the sauce with salt and pepper.
7. Cut meat. I like to keep the meat in 1 inch chunks, but you can also slice in 1/2 inch slices.
Spoon polenta or mashed potatoes into a shallow soup bowl or plate and then top with several chunks of meat and several tablespoons of sauce to serve.
*Barolo can be super expensive. My local wine shop usually recommends a reasonably priced Italian red I'll use in this braise or I have also tried barolos from Trader Joe's which have worked well. The main thing is you don't need to break the bank on the wine for this.
*Please, please, please....use pancetta...not bacon.
* Chuck roast is typically available at the meat department in my local grocery store, but I have also bought seven-bone pot roast, and used less liquid and time to braise this cut, since it is not as thick.
**SUBSTITUTIONS for Simple Pot Roast:
Instead of pancetta, use 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to sear the meat.
Instead of a bottle of wine, use 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth + 1 cup low sodium beef broth + 1 cup water as your braising liquid.
Skip the tomato paste and tomatoes.